Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Creating a Culture of Questions

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills [1]

[Note: This post was pretty much written by all of you.  There are no unique ideas here (save for a few anecdotes) but I still found it productive to try to flesh out exactly what it is that I do to promote this culture of questions in my classroom. It's a huge part of what I do, but I'm afraid my ability to articulate the process may be lacking.  I asked for a bunch of feedback via facebook/email from former students for this; kids ranging from the classes of '99 to '14 and they really helped shape this post.]  So here it goes:

I learned how to learn when I was in college.  No one told me.  It just happened.  As a teacher I have tried to help this process along a bit for my students because it kinda pissed me off that I spent 14 years in school and no one actually told me, "Learning is about the questions you ask, not the answers."  So that pretty sums up my teaching philosophy.  It hasn't  changed much in 16 years.

Kids don't get that.  They think that as long as they get the right answer, who cares about the how and the why?  Questions and answers are on opposite teams.  Answers get my work put on the refrigerator.  Questions mean I don't know the answers.  Answers mean I know.  Questions mean I don't know. I can't let 'em know I don't know.

That's wrong. It's our job to change that.  It's not easy and you have to set the table for yourself.  The pillars to a questioning classroom involve: Truth, Trust, Togetherness and Transparency.


I talk to my students.  A lot. In just about every year I've taught, I've had some variation of the same discussion with my classes.  For some classes, this talk happens in the first week.  For others it doesn't happen until the second semester.  But inevitably, it happens. 

It goes something like this:

Suppose all the information in the world is contained in this circle.

Here's you.

Some of them get offended until I show them this:

We're kinda in the same boat.  Not much to brag about and not much to be embarrassed about.

What happens when we share?

And the more we learn, the sooner we realize that this circle is waaaay too small. 
If our goal is to learn everything there is to learn, then we are chasing a finish line that's moving away from us much faster than we're moving towards it. 

The only way we begin to know is when we realize that we don't know...and become OK with that.

So, how do we share our knowledge?



Once we've established that we're all really in the same boat, there's no excuse for false pride. It's time to build trust.  Do I really believe what I told them?  I make it very clear to my students that I'm not smarter than they are; I just have more experience.  I make it very clear that I don't tolerate anyone looking down on others for asking questions.  I'm not so much of a there's no such thing as a dumb question kinda guy as much as I am a who are you to look down on someone who doesn't know? You didn't know the first time you tried kinda guy. This always leads to a digression about the first time we all tried to walk or ride a bike (my kids turn out to be great fodder for these kinds of discussions) which furthers the trust factor as I let them into my life a bit. 

I don't let my students say, "That's easy" when someone asks a question because it deflates the questioner.  Quickly.   First time that comes out of someone's mouth I say, "Everything's easy once you get it."

I have to be honest, establishing trust was much easier for me when I taught high school.  It's been a bit more of a challenge with 7th and 8th graders because I have a Kate-ish thing for truth.  Sometimes I have to dial it back a bit without becoming falsely warm and fuzzy. 


It takes some students quite a while to adapt to my questioning style in class.  I've had kids want to drop my class (especially when I was at the high school) because "he doesn't give me the answers" "he never answers my questions."  It's tough sometimes because kids are resolute.  They'll try to corner you into taking the pencil out of their hand.  The key is consistency.  The more questions I ask, the more willing they are to ask.

One of the things I've done to help establish a willingness to ask questions is give the class lateral thinking puzzles.  I mean, c'mon,  there's no way you can guess the answer on some of these on the first try.  Asking questions and being wrong are part of the process because they help us eliminate potential possibilities.  It takes kids time to figure this out because they want to be specific with their questions at first which is very counterproductive.  They have to learn to start with very general questions and the yes/no answer tells them whether or not to continue down that path.  Once they get the hang of this, they start to realize that there are common themes in many of these puzzles which can be applied to later puzzles.  This works nicely with problem solving strategies down the road.

At some point I throw out the challenge for them to find a lateral thinking puzzle that will stump me, which can't be done (or so I say).  The trash talk ensues and I model the heck out of how one goes from the very general question to more specific questions.  

The important thing here is that we do these as a class, together. 


Transparency has two meanings here: The I'm-not-here-to-trick-you-here's-really-what-I expect kind of transparency and the physical-posture-I'll-take-in-class-so-become-invisible kind of transparency.

Expectations/standards/topics...whatever, have to be absolutely clear.  The What? can't change.  It's the How? that is up for discussion.  I try things. I show my students first hand that I don't have all the answers and I am constantly trying to find better ways to help them learn.  I fail. A lot.  That's because I don't believe I have to have all the kinks worked out before I do something with my students.  Our entire class is one big question and that question is this:

What do we need to do in order for us to learn?

I don't have just one (physical) focal point in my room.  I have a SmartBoard on one wall, a dry erase board on the adjacent wall, multiple dry erase easels spread out throughout the room and I roam around using a wireless tablet that lets me annotate my slides.  The focal point is the content, not a person.  Students need to learn that the teacher is just one of many resources and doesn't necessarily have to be the primary resource.  This means that I have to make myself invisible at times.  I usually walk to the opposite side of the room as the person who is talking or maybe I actually take a seat during discussion and stare at the floor.  I've found that kids start to depend on each other if I'm not there (so to speak).  And when they depend on each other, they tend to start asking questions. 

So, I guess at the end of the day, I try to be as real with my students as I can.  This all comes down to relationships founded on truth; a truth that we can only catch glimpses of.  We often times beat ourselves up because we don't see the fruit of our labor.  These "soft skills" (who coined that term, anyway?) are really the reason we do what we do.  We spend a copious number hours finding ways to offer immediate feedback to our students but our feedback is much more slow cookin'.  We won't know if the time we spend with our kids will pay them dividends down the road, especially when it comes to these "soft skills."  That comes when we see our students after they have finished college (or maybe they didn't  go to college and went straight to work) and started their own families.  That's when we see the fruit.  So be patient, the harvest is comin'.

[1] Huge thanks to Riley for putting this together. The posts that have been assembled have been phenomenal and everyone who took the time to put something together should be commended. 

Update (as per Dave's request) 
My class layout.  I teach in a an "art room"  but since we don't offer classes like that anymore, I'm in it.  Students sit in pods (equipped with outlets making computer time nice), 4 or 5 to a group depending on class size. I'm hardly in the same place for more than 5 minutes.  


Lance Bledsoe said...

It's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one with students who dislike this refuse-to-just-give-them-the-answer questioning style. I swear, I've had students who contemplate violence when I won't just tell them the answer.

Also, thanks for that link to the lateral thinking puzzles. My (biological) kids love these puzzles, but I had forgotten how valuable they could be for creating a question-asking culture.

Malyn said...

great post.

I actually once had a student who commented 'but I don't know what questions to ask' in reference to questioning as a way to get to the answer.

Inquiry is a fantastic process and comes naturally to kids. I have heard it said that schooling kills this instinct so by the time kids get to high school, it's tough to re-kindle it.

Modeling it in the classroom - and at home - is a good way to teach it I guess...or so I hope as that's what I do too.

CalcDave said...

Re: Invisibility

Can you throw up a basic floorplan of your classroom? I have a window on one wall, whiteboards on two others, and the chance for a (movable) smartboard on a third, but arranging the 35 desks in the room to have access to at least the 3 walls is tough for me. Maybe there doesn't have to be a single set-up and encourage the students to move their desks so as to get the best view, but I thought I'd ask what you do.

untilnextstop said...

I really like this post, because your diagrams are very visual in illustrating the importance of peer learning. (Warning: I am going to steal them!)

I think a lot of learning about learning is also about breeding patience -- acknowledging that you yourself are making concrete progress by simply asking the right questions. But, questioning is only half the battle; an excellent learner differs from a good learner in their level of willingless to struggle with something that might lead to a messy answer in the end.

I think when I bring up this discussion about a questioning culture, I am going to highlight the fact that if you ever wanted to go outside of the circle of "complete knowledge", the only way to build new knowledge is to know what (types of) questions to ask AND to have the patience to tackle them with a variety of resources. Having some sort of process rubric might be nice, sprinkled throughout the year, to help kids to reflect on their efforts in tackling a difficult problem. ie. Having them list out the questions they had asked, in order, and what they did to research / answer each question.

grace said...

Many things I love about this post. A few:
- The knowledge diagram. Enough said.
- Reinforcing the message that knowledge/wisdom come with experience, trying, and actively learning rather than memorizing answers.
- Focusing on questioning answers rather than answering questions; the more you model asking questions, the more likely students are to do the same rather than think you're just hiding the ball.

Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca J-G said...

You sound like a wonderful teacher and I'm so glad you're out there. As a 'semi-retired' college professor in Teacher Education, I applaud your techniques AND the professors who must have encouraged you in your EDU Methods courses.(If they didn't, shame on them!)

My daughter is leaving for college in the fall. I'm going to have to see if she can identify professors who encourage questioning as part of the whole process. I've been her teachers' worst enemy during the past 12 yrs, being sure she was challenged and encouraged. She's an honor student and graduated at the top of her class, but now she will be totally on her own. Let's hope there are more teachers like you in the field!

Thanks so much for your information. You make me proud to be an educator!!

Clifford Pate said...

I have a really tiny room and have been kicking around the idea of having the desks in groups of 4 (like your tables). We don't have computers but I like the idea of moving around and the cooperative effect it would have on the kids.

What's a typical class day look like when the kids don't have a project or group activity to do? How do you force them to turn drill and kill into a cooperative event?

anamchara said...

Thank you for this. I plan on linking it to my entire school district come september. I think your philosophy and approach are both spot on for acquisition of knowledge. I come at the same scenario from a slightly different perspective. I'm a speech-language pathologist, and so I have the luxury of small groups, in one sense, but I also have very limited time, when language and especially the language of questions is SO important to learning. So usually what I am doing so often with kids with language disorders is not teaching them how to say things or how to give answers. I'm focused on teaching them how to ask questions. It's like the adage about giving a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life. I try to teach kids to ask questions and interact socially so that they CAN learn for the rest of their lives. You seem like a fabulous teacher. Thank you for sharing this.

Unknown said...

Reminds me a bit of a story that the famed physicist Richard Feynman wrote when he investigated the educational system in Brazil. That story is here. Definitely recommend the whole book, (though as a whole it's not about education).

David Cox said...

Thanks for all the positive feed back. It was a tough post to write so I'm glad to see it's being received in the spirit in which it's intended.

Please don't think that everyday is a Socratic seminar because it's not. If drill is what they need, them they will have to work independently. However, I do have them present solutions on their "group" boards to their groupmates. (Each group has either some designated board space or their own easel.) The student presenting is the "teacher" and groupmates become the "learners". But what ends up happening is that the one presenting is often the one doing most of the learning.

Anonymous said...

The $2 Interactive Whiteboard

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing!

I'm also one of those teachers that always answers a question with a question. But hey if that works why change?! Hello it's what Socrates did!

I love the set up of your room. There's another teacher at my school that moves around the room a lot herself. I'm also dealing with a small room (it used to be an office) and I'm trying to work on making it feel bigger and easier to move around in. I'm hoping that by using your images I can convince my large mixed resource/applied geometry class will start working more with everyone and getting along.

Anonymous said...

I love this so much I created a prezi designed around giving this talk. Here's the link, if you're interested:


Thanks for being such an inspiration.

MisterJason said...

It's comforting to know that there are other teachers out there who share a similar love of being "less helpful" in the interests of learning. I'll be stealing the knowledge metaphor- hopefully it will go a long way towards establishing that crucial trust.

Laura said...

I have just started training as a secondary maths teacher and have been really inspired by work we have looked at recently of other practitioners creating a more questioning environment within their classrooms.
I have experienced in the classroom children looking for the immediate solution to a problem and the frustration they express when instead of giving them the one answer they seek, you prompt them to do more exploring on their own via more leading questions. There's a part of me that gets excited by moments like this within a lesson, particularly when over time you can see that frustration fading and witness students becoming more comfortable and confident with creating their own questions.
I like that you speak of openness with your pupils and talking to them about different areas of understanding and experience rather than who is "smarter." I find many students, particularly within the maths classroom, can enter the room already feeling defensive and letting them know you're human can mean such a lot in breaking down that barrier.

I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks for sharing.

Hjwatts said...

Thanks for this post I found it really helpful! I have often found that the pupils I have taught shy away from questioning me and each other. Hopefully this post will help me gain that trust and then establish that questioning environment I'm looking for!

Unknown said...

Hi my name is Tom Finnegan, a future high school math teacher. I can relate a lot to this post because for me as well it wasn't until college where I learned the true value of asking questions. I had the same time of realization that questions were an extremely powerful learning tool and It was really nice to hear your perspective about fostering a culture of asking questions.